Born and brought up in India, Indu Sundaresan grew up on the stories of his avid storyteller father - a fighter pilot. She went to US for her higher studies and added two degrees to her academic qualifications - M.S. in operations research and an M.A. in economics. But the storytelling gene in her was too strong to get subdued by any distraction and she began writing soon after graduate school.
The Twentieth Wife, based on the life of Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan, is the tale of one of India's most powerful Mughal women. This is her first published which earned her many accolades.
She is the author of five books so far. The Twentieth Wife (2002); The Feast of Roses (2003); The Splendor of Silence (2006); In the Convent of Little Flowers (2008) and Shadow Princess (2010).
How did the idea of the Taj Trilogy get conceived?
When I was in graduate school at the University of Delaware, I was homesick one winter evening. So, I took the bus to the library, typed in ‘India’ in the subject keyword, and went to the section that housed books on India—memoirs, travelogues, non-fiction books. I came home with a lot of books, one of which was on the Mughal harems and Mehrunnisa who was Empress Nur Jahan.
I read all those books over the ensuing weeks, but that particular one on the Mughal harems stayed with me after I’d finished my M.S. in operations research and my M.A. in economics. When I decided to write a novel, I began, actually with two books set in India in the late 1500s, entirely fictional…and since they were early books, not well written at all! But, they got me practicing the craft, taught me how to write an entire book—beginnings, middles and ends.
After I’d finished these two novels, and decided that they were no good, I began casting around for another topic to write on, and remembered that book, went back to the library to research on Mehrunnisa’s life, and wrote then, my first published novel, The Twentieth Wife, which is the first novel of the Taj trilogy.
What are the things in the Mughal dynasty that fascinate you the most?
You know, there’s little about the Mughals that’s not fascinating. They lived larger-than-life lives—they loved passionately; they built palaces, forts, monuments fervently; they came to India to conquer and stayed on to leave an indelible mark on India’s history. The Mughal kings also kept reams of documentation on their lives, their loves, their buildings, their conquests, their fights and quarrels—a lot of these have not survived through the ages, but there’s enough to get a fair idea.
The novels of the Taj trilogy, told mostly from the viewpoint of the women of the Mughal harems, are about as accurate in factual content as I could make them, and I had plenty of material to work with!
You have written on strong Mughal women characters who otherwise get overshadowed by the Royal kings in history books. What was the motivation behind this?
Most women in history are overshadowed by the men of their times and their lives—in Mughal India, it probably was due to the fact that the women lived in cloistered zenanas, were not seen by the men at court, and rarely revealed their faces (or their thoughts) to the outside world.
And yet, in many instances, they were the power to reckon with behind that veil they wore. Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan, was one such authority in the Mughal Empire. She signed on imperial documents with her own seal; had coins minted in her name; and sat at the jharoka balcony when she gave audience to petitioners. All of these were the prerogative of the ruling king of the empire, not of his wife, especially not a twentieth wife, so low in the harem’s hierarchy.
The first two novels of the trilogy, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, are about Mehrunnisa. For the third novel of the trilogy, Shadow Princess, I skipped a generation and went on to detail the life of Princess Jahanara.
She was Shah Jahan’s and Mumtaz Mahal’s oldest surviving child, and after her mother’s death, she acquired the place of the Padshah Begam in the zenana—an unusual role even for a Mughal woman to play, because she was a daughter, not a wife, supreme in her father’s harem. That position gave her power, plenty of money, and the authority to try and manipulate the succession politics. She didn’t succeed, as we know, since the brother she favored, Dara Shikoh, did not ascend the throne; another brother did, Emperor Aurangzeb.
Out of all the books that you have authored, which is that one book that you are really proud of? Why?
This is a tough question; one I try not to answer. It’s true that for authors, our books are akin to our children, so I try not to play favorites. Usually, I’m most attached to the book I’m currently working on, for obvious reasons—my attention is most focused on that ‘child’ at that moment!
You have written an anthology too. How different are the two styles of story telling - novel vs short story?
My one anthology, In the Convent of Little Flowers, is a collection of stories set in modern India. This was a tough collection to write, mostly because the topics covered are deeply emotional, sometimes things about our lives we don’t question, try to ignore.
I write short stories when I’m in a lull between novels, or even when I’m immersed in a novel and find that it’s going nowhere fast enough for me. Then, I take a break, think about something else, work on something short.
The short story can be satisfying to write when your main focus is novels—simply put, you construct a narrative, take one moment in a person’s life, build a story around it, and end it in about 25 pages. There’s no downtime in my short stories, they gallop, and are meant to leave the reader breathless at the end. Any reflection upon what happened? That comes later.
Which is your upcoming book, what is it about?
The Mountain of Light will be published by Harper Collins in India in October, 2013. The title of the novel comes from the Persian translation of the word Kohinoor—as in the diamond. The novel deals with the last fifty odd years of the diamond’s existence in India—when it is owned by the rulers of the Punjab Empire, the Maharajahs Ranjit and Dalip Singh. British officials come to the Punjab court, asking for Ranjit Singh’s help in the war in Afghanistan, and when he dies, his lands are annexed to British lands in India.
Dalip is only six years old when he becomes king of the Punjab, but it’s a shaky throne, and he’s escorted from his lands under the guardianship of the British and taught to become a perfect English gentleman. The Kohinoor is sent in great secrecy to England and to Queen Victoria. In 1854, Maharajah Dalip Singh follows his diamond to England; there he’s feted and petted by the queen. As he grows up, he realizes that nothing can replace the loss of his Punjab, the enormous wealth of his Toshakhana, and his Kohinoor diamond.
Indian readers read a lot of foreign literature. How are Indian books received by foreign readers ? Is the scene changing in any way?
This is true, I never looked at the flip side—Indian readers do read a lot of foreign literature. There is, recently, a huge market of Indian-authored books—I think we’re coming into our own now, and telling our own stories. Frankly, nothing but good can come out of this, because we each bring our own perspectives to our histories and our stories.
How is marketing and promotion of a book changing its readership? What are the best ways to ensure wider reach of a book?
When I first published The Twentieth Wife in 2002, the internet was still a murky world. Now, things are much clearer—readers are online, authors should be also, there are just so many opportunities.
Many foreign authors have been writing on India as per their understanding of this diverse nation. What are your views on the different perceptions captured from foreign lens?
To me, different perspectives on India, from non-Indians, are always interesting. Sometimes they’re not so accurate, and sometimes they tell us things about ourselves that we might not otherwise notice.
How would you compare publishing industry in India with its counterpart in other countries? Which are the areas that can be improved upon in Indian publishing field?
The Indian publishing industry in English—just as Indian authors—is also coming into its own. My mother translated the novels of my Taj trilogy into Tamil, and we’re published in Chennai by one of the premier historical fiction publishing houses, Vanathi Pathipakkam. It’s in dealing with Vanathi that I’ve realized that the local language market is long established, and extremely vibrant.
The English language market publishers are likewise brilliant in India, especially in acquiring Indian authors from within the country—the range of Indian writing now, both in India and abroad is quite astounding.
Which are your favourite authors - Indian or foreign? Which is your all time favourite book?
I grew up reading a lot of fiction from England, the classics—and in many ways, since they’re favorites from childhood, they are books I return to over and over again. From the sheer number of times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and all of Austen, it’s probably my favorite book.